School Enrollment Difficult for Special Needs Students

December 2, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018    

NEW YORK—Jacqueline Cruz’s daughter is autistic. This summer she was promised a spot in a small self-contained class in a new elementary school in New York City. But in September Cruz was surprised to discover that the school actually did not provide self-contained classes. “The staff was caring, but there was nothing they could do,” she said.

Cruz’s case is not unusual. In the past year, the City Council education committee held three meetings on special education. Each time it heard a similar story, of a special needs student who is sent to a school that doesn’t provide proper services.

“That sounds about right,” said a school administrator from New York City, who wished to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from the Department of (DOE). He put the blame on the enrollment offices not being trained well enough on the rules of the special education reform the city rolled out three years ago.

“They’re like a hammer. … They say ‘You have to serve that child,’” the person said. “And they don’t listen when you say ‘We can’t provide this particular service at this school.’”

Last school year more than 225,000 students in the city received special education services. That is over 21 percent of the whole student population. The reform aims to fit the students into regular classes as much as is “academically appropriate.”

The administrator argued the problem isn’t with the enrollment itself, saying there are “many great people” in the office. Rather, he said, they were not properly instructed on how the reform should be put into practice.

“They would be the first ones to tell you that,” he said. But they cannot, since all press inquiries have to go through the city’s Department of Education (DOE) communication office. The communication office declined a request for an interview with any of the enrollment office’s officials.

The enrollment offices shouldn’t decide deliberately, where each student goes, and follow set procedures. But for special needs students, the situation is more complicated. Each year every special-needs student should be evaluated to see if any changes in services would be necessary. But in the meantime, schools may set their special education budgets before some of their students have had their evaluations completed.

And once the office picks a school for a child, transfer in the middle of a year is no easy matter. “There will be conversations that we will have with the family, the student and with the office of enrollment,” explained Yu Seung, principal at the Academy for Software Engineering, a high school in Lower Manhattan. “It is pretty nuanced and there isn’t necessarily a fixed way of doing it.”

That’s why, the administrator said, school principals need to keep an amiable relationship with the enrollment and may not even want to comment on the issue. “They [enrollment office] can destroy your school,” another school principal, also not wishing to be identified, told the Epoch Times.

“I’m sure there are individual cases where there might be a set of disputes between the enrollment office an the parents,” DOE Deputy Chancellor,Shael Polakow-Suransky, told the Epoch Times at an EdFunders event on Nov. 21. “Whenever a parent has a concern it goes up through the channels straight to our deputy chancellor of special education and almost every single case gets resolved.”

Cruz’s problem was resolved—eventually. She was able to transfer her daughter to another school with the desired class, but it took two months and a considerable amount of advocacy. “I’m frustrated that so much time was wasted getting to this point,” she said.